I've written a lot lately about the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction, but there's another spectrum-related proceeding at the FCC that also holds promise for expanding Internet access to more Americans: opening unused “white spaces” in the television spectrum bands for broadband service. These unused channels will become even more useful for broadband applications once broadcasters vacate some of this spectrum as part of the February 2009 digital television transition.

A Washington Post editorial today does an excellent job explaining the promise of this unique spectrum:

Coveted bits of the radio spectrum called "white spaces" -- unused areas of spectrum wedged between licensed TV channels -- may soon be freed up by the Federal Communications Commission. Right now no broadband devices are allowed to use these parts of the spectrum, but the FCC is considering whether to let companies sell FCC-certified wireless devices that would be used without an exclusive broadcast license in these slivers of bandwidth. Such white-space devices (WSDs) would be low-power and so would emit signals over very small geographic areas. White space within the TV band is unlicensed, like WiFi, but is physically better suited than WiFi for broadband transmission.

Google and other companies (including Dell, EarthLink, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, and Philips) have formed the "White Spaces Coalition," to persuade the FCC to establish appropriate interference standards that would allow entrepreneurs to develop fixed and mobile devices that utilize these airwaves. Earlier this year, the coalition submitted two prototype devices (from Microsoft and Philips) to the FCC's engineers to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach.

The FCC's engineering analysis, released two weeks ago, confirms what we have stated all along: it is technologically feasible to provide Internet access through this segment of spectrum without interfering with either digital television signals or wireless microphones. While one of the prototypes unfortunately was damaged, the other prototype fully demonstrated the promise of using these "white spaces" for Internet access. The coalition filed comments at the FCC yesterday responding to these test results.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has expressed a keen interest in keeping this matter moving forward, and the coalition will be working with FCC staff to address any remaining technical issues. As the Washington Post notes today, the promise that this spectrum holds for bringing the Internet to more Americans is too great to ignore:

Certainly the FCC shouldn't approve WSDs that will obliterate TV. But just because these prototypes fell short doesn't mean the technology can never work. The limited success of these devices and another designed at the University of Kansas certainly gives hope that someday a non-interfering product could exist. After all, low-power wireless microphone operators often already use white spaces for similar short-distance broadcasts without a license -- although they're supposed to get licenses -- and they coexist peacefully with TV stations...Given the good that could come out of using this unoccupied bandwidth, the FCC should continue to encourage WSD research and development.